Yesterday I stumbled across news that another celebrity pastor has lost their job. Perry Noble was pastor of Newspring Church in South Carolina. A church that grew to 30,000 members (not a typo) in 16 years.
Sadly my first response was not one of shock…high profile pastors making news for stuff like this is far too common. (And while it happens to “low-profile” church leaders too, it generally doeasn’t register much in the public awareness beyond their local church…)
I don’t know too much about Noble. I did read his blog for a while back in Ithaca, but his style was not one I connected with at all.
While money, power and sex tend to be the big three in these types of stories, the issue highlighted here was “his use of alcohol” and his “posture towards marriage.” (Whatever that means.) While the story was simply another in a way too long line of stories, what jumped off the screen as I read it was this sentence:
Noble admits to an “obsession to do everything possible to reach 100,000 and beyond” which had “come at a personal cost in my own life and created a strain on my marriage”
When we were starting our church in Ithaca, it was hard. And it was slow. If you told me in the year 2000 that at some point we would have 100 people be part of our church, I would have been thrilled. But the truth is, when we had 280 people attending regularly just a few years later, my mindset was not excitement or gratitude, (although I probably did a celebratory fist pump), it was “how do we get to 500?”
I remember having a conversation with another pastor around that time, and asking, “is there something wrong with me? Why can’t I enjoy this? Why do other church leaders not seem to be obsessed with growing their churches.”
Now, I asked this question to a person that I had heard on several occasions say that he wants to grow his church to 1000. So rather than the insight I needed, I received the encouragement I wanted.
What I needed was a lesson in contentment…
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:12 NIV
…but I left with a belief that despite that feeling inside that something was deeply wrong, my obsession with growing our church “for God” had me on the right track.
To be clear, I don’t have anything against churches of any size…big or small. The obsession Noble expresses, can be just as strong in the person who wants to grow to 100.
In fact, if we really do care about seeing more and more people follow Jesus, then that means the church will grow. We should see that as a positive, not a negative.
The Problem is ‘More’
When I was in college studying Human Resources, we had to take classes in US labour history. I don’t remember who it was, but the professor told the story of the union leader who was testifying before congress, and when asked what the unions wanted, he simply replied, “More.”
For those of us who grew up in the west, that is the culture we swim in. We want more. We have to have the latest gadget…knowing full well that within a short time it will be obsolete and we will once again long for something with more. And of course not just gadgets, homes, cars, jobs, vacations…more is never ending. And more keeps us from being grateful, or content.
It is hard to pastor a church well, when rather than being thankful for the 30,000 (still not a typo) that are there, you are obsessed with the 70,000 who aren’t. Or in more normal people terms, it is hard to be thankful for the 80 who are part of the church, when we’re focused on however many aren’t there yet.
It is not possible to be content, or grateful when we are focused on what we don’t have.
Consumerism infiltrating the church is an easy target, but when it fits…it fits.
I’ve had conversations with several missionaries from the US here in Ireland and Europe. And while most will talk about how understanding and encouraging their ministry partners are, they still feel the pressure of more. Not necessarily to build mega-churches, but to do more. To start more groups, to lead more projects, to do more then we are currently doing. No one seems to be able to put their finger on it…but they all seem to feel it.
But speaking of more, I do wonder how many more stories like Noble’s need to happen before we see that the obsession with more, not only isn’t working…in the church it can’t…it violates the values of gratitude and contentment.
Of course, if you do want great gain…
“But godliness with contentment is great gain.” 1 Timothy 6:6 NIV
Also published on Medium.